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Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools needs an average of $55 million a year for the next five years to make capital improvements to its campuses — and that number doesn’t include the cost of building new schools.

The message was part of a quarterly report on capital needs to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education last week. Superintendent Ann Clark called for the report to ensure CMS is “better positioned to identify and state our capital needs to our Board of County Commissioners.” CMS will formally present a Capital Needs Assessment — likely the basis of a future school bond referendum — in February.

District staff say the improvements are essential to extend the life of campus buildings and building components in order to keep students focused on learning. “There is an association with our building environments and the ability for students to achieve,” said Carol Stamper, CMS’ chief operating officer.

The work would run the gamut from installing new window blinds to completely overhauling heating and air systems. It falls into three categories: preventative maintenance, capital repair, and replacement and unscheduled maintenance. Stamper’s report to the school board estimates CMS will need $270 million “to be able to properly do the work we need to do” by 2021.

Mecklenburg County voters overwhelmingly approved a $290 million bond for CMS in 2013, but most of that money is earmarked for new or replacement buildings. The district estimates it has more than a billion dollars in needs over the next decade, including the construction of new campuses.

But preventative maintenance and capital repairs — things like installing new carpet or fixing leaky roofs — are critical, Stamper said. “They’re just as important as building new buildings, adding new schools and doing renovations.” Indeed, Stamper’s report identified $59 million in roof replacement needs alone.

As I’ve previously reported here, the district’s footprint is incredibly large. Its 650 buildings comprise 21.5 million square feet, roughly 21 times the square footage of the Bank of America building, Charlotte’s largest skyscraper.

The projected capital needs come during a time when CMS anticipates significant growth among the school-age population. It estimates Mecklenburg County will grow by 16,700 school-age children during the next five years. Not all of those kids will attend CMS schools, but many will.

Stamper cited three industry standards for capital project budgets, based on square footage, which estimate CMS should have a maintenance budget between $58 million and $87 million a year. The district has budgeted $23.6 million for the current school year.

CMS staff also regularly point to a study that says $1 of preventative maintenance will eliminate $4 of likely expenditure on capital needs in the future. The Capital Needs Assessment in February will offer the best look at CMS’ comprehensive capital priorities — and will also be a good indicator of how large a potential school bond could be, and which projects will make the cut.

“If we invest early and more often,” Stamper told the school board, “we will avoid many of the problems we’re seeing now.”

Adam Rhew

Adam Rhew attended Beverly Woods Elementary, Carmel Middle, and South Mecklenburg High schools, all part of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. He earned a journalism and political science degree from UNC-Chapel Hill. He is a contributor to Southern Living, Charlotte magazine, and SBNation Longform, among other publications. Previously, Adam was an award-winning television and radio news reporter, with stops at stations in Chapel Hill, N.C., Charlottesville and Richmond, Va., and Charlotte, N.C.